Archive for January, 2010

21st January 2010

January 25, 2010

I’ve been putting off taking a driving test in the state of Pennsylvania for 25 years but I can put it off no longer. The day is completely clear with the sun shining out of a sky bluer than you ever see in temperate climes. My former student, the beautiful Amy Murray, has agreed to drive me out into the suburbs where I must take the test. As we drive she tells me about the work she is doing on Philip Pullman and children’s literature. When we hit the strip development and the fast food outlets, I am struck again by the historical paradox that the richest country the world has ever known eats worse than any country recorded by history. We’re early and light on a Paneera’s, the acceptable face of fast food in the suburbs. I’m amazed at the activity. It’s only 8.30 in the morning but every table seems to be hosting a meeting of some sort with multiple lap tops unsheathed. What is being bought, sold, produced?
The instructor is helpful ( I am wearing my best suit and a tie) and I pass the test. How grand we are this morning.

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5th January 2010

January 25, 2010

Back to Pittsburgh once again and my undoubted joy at returning to my adopted city is somewhat mitigated by finding in quick succession that the locks on the 5th floor of the Cathedral have been changed, that my computer has broken and that my phone has stopped working. Plus there is a foot of snow, the temperature is 20 below and the Monangahela has frozen over. When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.

31st December 2009

January 15, 2010

2009 was the year of fun from Sri Lanka with Flavia in February to Venice, Spetsos and Berlin in the autumn. It was also the year of the research project on colonial film and working with Filipa on Black Balance. What it was not was a year of writing. When I look into 2010 I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The keywords project, the film and literature project, the course on experiment are enough to keep me busy. But I must also finish the introduction to the adaptation collection, write the short book on modernism that incubated in Sri Lanka and make sure the colonial film project ends on a very high note with two conferences. Yikes

25th December 2009

January 15, 2010

“In the mountains, there you feel free”. And you do unless it is raining. We are spending a family Christmas in the Dolomites and everything is perfect, hotel, food, snow. The only problem is that the temperature has gone up and the rain has come down. My daughter Johanna who is made of stronger stuff than her brothers refuses to give up and she forces me to go out skiing on Christmas morning. Virtue is rewarded for no sooner have we reached the slopes than the rain lifts. Johanna skies with me on easier slopes for a bit and then sets off higher up the mountain. I coast to the bottom and trudge back to the hotel – I pass a bar that is open and order a drink of delicious Alto Adige white wine. A perfect Christmas morning.

December 16th 2009

January 7, 2010

For the past month, every spare moment, and there haven’t been a lot of those, is devoted to state policy on the film industry. There can be few more tedious subjects in the history of the universe, but at the same time New Labour’s film policy offers in microcosm a picture of its abject failures on both the cultural and economic front. The dominance of spin, the complete lack of interest in genuine productive investment and a populist philistinism have combined in an orgy of wasteful spending. The orgy is clearly over. The question now is who is going to clear up the mess. New Labour’s only idea is to persevere with failed policies so those who made the mess will be asked to clear it up without any change of analysis or strategy. And so I have written another, and I hope last, in my series of anti-New Labour polemics. Prospect, the policy wonk’s magazine of choice, want the piece and they edit it with a toothcomb. All the jokes go, but overall they turn it into a much stronger piece demanding not only that I check all my facts three times but that I get some quotes as well, to prove that I am not making it all up

In November, the UK Film Council issued a consultation document for its future strategy. This came on the heels of a press release in August from the department for culture, media and sport stating its intention to merge the UKFC and the British Film Institute. What both documents actually signalled was the total failure of a key plank in new Labour’s cultural policy.
When the then secretary of state Chris Smith set up the UKFC in 2000 the aim was to create a “sustainable film industry” in Britain. Out would go the world of production companies living hand to mouth making small films, and in would come an industry to rival Hollywood. The national lottery would provide subsidy on a scale to dwarf anything that had gone before. The BFI, a world-class organization, was stripped of its production activities and deemed an “educational” body, although all its innovative educational experiments were abandoned. A new organisation, the UKFC, was established, to provide the strategic vision and investment that would create a gleaming new profitable future.
There were some voices even then—and mine was one of them—who claimed that a sustainable film industry was a fantasy. Moreover, it was a fantasy that had failed to materialise in every decade from Alexander Korda in the 1930s to David Puttnam in the 1970s and 1980s.
Film plays a very different role in Britain, both culturally and industrially, than it does in the United States. For complex historical reasons, both theatre and television occupy a much more dominant position in Britain. In addition, the fact of a shared language with the US makes our industry a branch campus of Hollywood. This means that inevitably the film industry is a hodgepodge of small production companies and big studios that make their living on the margins of the American film and the British television industries.
Until the creation of the UKFC, all the existing forms of subsidy in the British film industry recognised this fact—from the venerable British Film Institute Production Board (which funded very low budget experimental films) to the more recent British Screen (which provided additional monies to commercial films) and the completely new “franchises” scheme, through which lottery money was put directly into production companies.
New Labour appointed John Woodward to make their new institution a reality, and he has run the UKFC ever since as its Chief Executive. Woodward swept away all the existing arrangements and deemed that all subsidy would now flow through this single body. And what subsidy: in less than a decade, the UKFC has spent more than £300m on film (at least five times previous subsidy regimes). But there is still no sign of a sustainable British film industry.
Lest I be thought a neutral judge of this experiment may I note, for the record, that one of Woodward’s first acts was the abolition of the BFI Production Board—which I headed from 1985-89, and whose future I thought I had assured—as well as the abandonment of the graduate school that, as the BFI’s head of research and education from 1989-98, I had thought would ensure the future of the BFI itself. Two decades of work were trashed in a year and without any debate. But that was long ago and faraway, and if Woodward had succeeded in kick-starting a new industry perhaps the game would have been worth the candle.
He didn’t. And while it was inevitable that economic and cultural realities were going to ensure the failure of this new Labour folly, the UKFC could have failed with grace. But it has failed gracelessly. In preparing this article, I have talked to many producers and have been startled by the level of venom I have encountered. For the UKFC’s aggressive commercial strategy, completely at odds with comparable European bodies, has gone hand in hand with the frequent contractual request that they have final cut on a film, overriding both the producer and director. Moreover, as a senior executive of one the most established production companies told me, “it uses the tactics of a Hollywood studio and its monopoly position to bully producers out of decent equity positions.”
It is here that we touch the kernel of the fantasy of the sustainable British film industry. What everyone has dreamed of is a Hollywood studio in Britain, with its boss firing off curt memos with all the brutality and panache of a Jack Warner. But if the failures of Korda and Puttnam were tragedy, Woodward has repeated them as farce. Despite talking the talk of an experienced industry insider, Woodward has never walked the walk. He has neither produced a foot of film, nor raised a pound of finance for a specific film.
Unsurprisingly for the chief of a new Labour institution, Woodward learned his trade as a lobbyist for industry bodies. He is a master spinner and the UKFC expends a considerable amount of energy spinning to the government not on the industry’s but on its own behalf. The Council pours money into genuine events like the Independent awards or the London Film Festival in order to attract sufficient celebrities, whose photos in the paper the next day are shown to officials and ministers as proof that it is doing a magnificent job. More alarmingly, its patronage in effect suppresses dissent. Rod Stoneman, former head of the Irish Film Board, says “nobody will criticize the UKFC publicly because they are convinced that will damage their chances of future funding.”
Of course, the UKFC has done some good. Its one unqualified success, praised by all, has been the tax credit system for the film industry, which it has championed. With so much money, it has also co-financed some great British films, like 2009’s magnificent Fish Tank. But its successes have not matched those of the cash-strapped bodies that preceded it and its failure rate is far worse. It has rolled out a digital screen network that the industry was unwilling to fund, yet it does not have the ambitious distribution policy that would turn this network into a real national resource. It has poured money into training, where the results have been mixed at best. To take one spectacular example, the Film Business Academy, which launched its courses at Cannes in 2007 with much beating of the drums, has decided to ditch those same courses on the basis that they were “neither educationally valid nor commercially sustainable.” When I asked insiders to tell me what the Council does very well, even apologists only became enthusiastic about First Light, a scheme set up in 2001 that has helped the production of over 800 films by “budding young filmmakers.”
One area where Woodward has succeeded is in setting financial records for the quangocracy. A DCMS written reply this summer confirmed that four executives are earning more than a cabinet minister (that is, more than £144,520). Others argue that, if bonuses are included, the figure is actually seven. These figures bear no comparison to salaries in the industry itself: the head of development is on a cool £165,000 a year, at least three times the industry norm. Given these salaries, it is not surprising that the last four year’s accounts show overheads running at a staggering £8m—more than the total government funding for the bodies the UKFC replaced. The accounts also show that these overheads make up 25 per cent of the income that the Council derives from its lottery income. In 2008, for example, the UKFC received £29.7m in direct lottery grants and another £5.7m in recoupment from previous lottery investments. Besides spending £8m on itself, the UKFC put not one penny of its return from films back into film production itself, a feat it has managed every year that it has existed.
Whatever happens, government expenditure is going to have to be slashed in the very near future. Now is the moment to think of reforming in combination with cutting. The Tory leader David Cameron keeps on saying that there is an immense amount of wasteful government expenditure. If he wants to demonstrate that he means business, then having a businesslike look at the UKFC would be an excellent first step. The moment could not be more propitious. The proposed merger of the UKFC and the BFI allows a real review of film policy. Initially it was proposed as a simple takeover of the BFI by the Council, no doubt designed to provide some cover for an institution that has no basis in statute or public political debate. The fact that the BFI has a royal charter—which enshrines its mission to “encourage the development of the arts of film, television and the moving image throughout the UK”—must offer tempting security to UKFC executives fearful that their gravy train might be about to hit the buffers. But, after a decade, the BFI worm has finally turned. With Greg Dyke as its new chair and a board that shows more spirit and intelligence than its predecessors, the BFI has proposed a reversal in which it takes over needlessly duplicated functions from the Council, such as education.
One further activity must be taken over by the BFI. At the moment, the UKFC acts as the research body on which the government relies for its industry statistics. But the statistics we see tend to reflect rather too well on the Council. The most egregious example was the much touted claim that 15 per cent of films seen on world screens last year were British. No breakdown of this figure was given, making it impossible to distinguish between Hollywood studio pictures made in this country, like the Harry Potter films, and those films actually made by British independents. No government can make policy on such misleading statistics. It is, of course, the case that British actors, in particular, and talent in general continue to attract Hollywood. This is a delight and has been true since Charlie Chaplin; it owes little or nothing to the Council.
Shorn of these superfluous functions, the UKFC could finally focus on how best to fund films. The key figure here will be Tim Bevan, its newly appointed chair. Unlike his predecessors, Bevan is a producer. Indeed he is not only the most successful producer of his generation but also, arguably, the most successful British producer of all time. Twice nominated for Oscars and with many of his films having set box office records, his nearly 100 film credits include My Beautiful Laundrette, Four Weddings and a Funeral, United 93, Elizabeth, Shaun of the Dead and the Bridget Jones films. Throughout the 1980s, before his company Working Title signed up first with Polygram and then with Universal, Bevan worked as one of those small producers who have been so downtrodden and patronised by the UKFC in this decade. His hand can be seen in the new consultation on the UKFC’s future. From now on, producers are guaranteed favourable equity positions; now, too, all film revenue will go back into production.
But Bevan has two problems. The first is his Chief Executive, Woodward, whose credibility may be undermined if he has to mouth policies that contradict everything he has said and done in the past ten years. The second is that Bevan has publicly expressed belief in the failed model of the Council itself. How long his belief in a publicly funded monopoly will last is anybody’s guess. The consultation certainly understands that there is a problem, promising a plurality of “gatekeepers” for the public funds on offer. But such promises mean little if these gatekeepers are all within the same institution. The real question is whether the money should be distributed through franchises or whether we should revert to previously successful models. It remains to be seen whether Bevan will crown his career as a producer by devising a new and lasting settlement for the public finance of film.

December 15th 2009

January 7, 2010

The Eurostar again and the pleasures of Paris. A friend says that all power is now concentrated in the hands of one man. No decision can be made without reference upwards to Sarkosy. This development is clear in both British and Italian politics. The 24 hour news cycle and the speed of digital communication means that everybody is on message and the message is written by one individual or rather by his attaché de presse.
My last night I have dinner with Patrizia Lombardo who has taken a short leave from Geneva. She wants to talk about the book that she is writing for the Language, Discourse, Society series. It subjects the masters of modern American cinephilia Scorsese, Lynch, Jarmusch and Van Sant to the closest of readings, revealing shots where quotation and unconscious repetition become one, the very core of a modern auteurism.
Talking with Patrizia about the cinema reminds me of how much fun we had teaching together particularly in 1992 when we taught a course on the early Cahiers du cinema. It was in that course that I really discovered Bazin for the first time and set the intellectual course that I am still following. Patrizia used to dress in very violent purples and would stride up and down the classroom. We would fence and parry intoxicated by our arguments as we desperately tried to salvage some sense from the intellectual disaster that had seen the deadends of Parisian theory turn into American academic orthodoxy. Of course, the disaster has got worse but like Tennyson’s Ulysses I can say that “I have drunk delight of battle with my peers/ far on the ringing plains of windy Troy”. Although for windy Troy you have to substitute my much loved Cathedral of Learning.
And the battle continues without missing a beat, as though we have just finished teaching class in the Cathedral. Patrizia has just edited an issue of Critique on Romanticism and Europe. We talk of the etymology which goes back to the French word ‘roman” , which signals not simply the generic form of fiction but also the linguistic form of a vernacular language. Romantic is of course still completely current in English with the simple senses that attach to love. Could there be more evident example how even in our most powerful emotions we are simply playthings of fictional forms and linguistic registers.
I am full of the autobiography of Joseph Rovan that I have just read “Memoirs d’un francais qui se souvient d’avoir ete Allemand” Rovan was born an assimilated Jew in Vienna, moved to Berlin at 8, fled to Paris at 15 where he became a militant Catholic, was active in the Resistance, captured and sent to Dachau. After the war he devoted his life to Franco-German understanding. What has astonished me is the picture it paints of the immediate post-war years in France. In 1946 Rovan divided his time between the Ministry of War where he was chef de cabinet to a Gaullist minister, the editions du Seuil where he ran the affairs of Esprit, in retrospect clearly the most important of all the French intellectual magazines of that time, and Travail et Culture where he worked with Andre Bazin and Chris Marker. Rovan’s extraordinary range of responsibilities seem to me an emblem of the hopes of the cultural revolution, and that is the only accurate term for the period 1944-48. Of course the revolution was defeated as the Communist Party took up its Cold war positions but it is worth remembering that extraordinary moment, not least because it is little documented. There is a good academic history of Esprit but nothing on Travail and Culture. Perhaps I should end my jack of all trades academic career as a French cultural historian.
We talk on and on but now we are old and we stop not with the physical exhaustion of youth in the early hours of the morning but with the prudent thought that I have an early Eurostar to catch. Paris is in the grip of an unusually bitter cold spell of weather and I have come from a relatively clement London with woefully inadequate clothes. Patrizia insists I take a scarf, revealing a maternal side that I have never seen before. I am glad of it the next morning as I walk to the Gare du Nord.

December 11th 2009

January 7, 2010

This has been a very busy term and its end is particularly frenetic. Steve Connor, director of the London Consortium, rings me to tell me that his son has been attacked in the street and will I deputise for him at the end of term party. I was going to the party anyway so that is no trouble. By a coincidence my youngest son Finn who is also at Manchester University was also attacked in a London street earlier this year. Every year I warn my American students, particularly the boys, how violent a city London is. Sometimes I think I’m being melodramatic, today it seems I’m just being realistic.
I’ve invited Doreen Mende, who Flavia and I met in Berlin, to the party. Doreen is a curator and is keen to work on the Colonial Film project. Since September 2007 I have been directing, with Lee Grieveson, a project to catalogue all the 7,000 films representing British colonies held in the archives of the British Film Institute. The work has been fascinating but the whole project, intended to occupy a small part of my time has completely overwhelmed me. Since September 2008 I have scarcely worked on anything else. Doreen is full of the contemporary discourse of the art world, which by one of those ironies of history is the last place where the discourse of politicized theory of the Parisian sixties still lives. Admittedly it is now a discourse blissfully unaware of its own history and of the fact that the political conditions that it assumed have gone with the wind. I meet Doreen outside the Birkbeck English department in Russell Square and we take a taxi to the Tate Modern. I tease Doreen about how all her generation think that surveillance was invented by Jeremy Bentham and his Panopticon. You only have to read Genesis with Adam and Eve hiding in the garden to realize that the superego has been spying on us since the dawn of time. But of course that was what Foucault wanted above all to deny, to construct a modern hell, time rather than species bound. Doreen looks at me as though I am temporarily deranged. She comes from Thuringia, for many the heart of Germany, but for me her features are pure Pole . Indeed she reminds me very strongly of the Polish beauties who haunted my teenage years at my school in Ealing. As these memories of childhood flash up, I realize that we are passing Fetter Lane and on impulse I ask the cabbie to cut down to Fleet Street. Throughout my childhood, this was the street that never slept; the hum of the Mirror presses was the soothing accompaniment to my sleep, mechanical surf crashing with the most regular of rhythms. I try to explain how exciting it had been to me as a boy but as they say, you had to have been there to understand. Funnily enough the cabbie had, he had been ‘on the print’ until 1970 and so we progress to the Tate Modern – two old men reminiscing.
The party is on the seventh floor of the Tate with what is certainly the best view in London looking both up and down the river and across at St Paul’s. . St Paul’s geographically defined my childhood: to the east of Fetter Lane and to the south of Cripplegate to which we moved when I was sixteen. The party is very enjoyable, Doreen mixes very easily with the students and suddenly I am going to miss my train down to Devon. Luckily Doreen, Laura Mulvey and I catch a taxi immediately. We drop Doreen at Lamb Conduit’s Street, en route to a night’s clubbing and Laura and I chat happily as we head west. I’ve just finished teaching a course on Godard with Laura which has been a great pleasure and she reminds me that 30 years ago we had worked in Lamb Conduit Street on a Godard book. Apparently I had announced to here there that if you added Godard to Raymond Williams, that provided most of the answers. I am surprised by my own consistency and then Paddington swallows me up.

December 9th 2009

January 7, 2010

Wednesday

My term started in early September when I began teaching my class of Pittsburgh students about the films of Stephen Frears. I’d chosen this subject partly as preparation for a complete retrospective that I am preparing with Larry Kardish for the Museum of Modern Art in 2012 and partly because Frears’s oeuvre offers both three great films on London and a array of genres which form a very good introduction to the cinema. The course has been very enjoyable.
I have been astonished how good the films have been and how much the class has liked them. Of course, many of Frears’s films I know backwards, I teach the three London films (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Dirty Pretty Things) most years However, I must admit that when I sat down to watch Gumshoe after 38 years I was a little worried about how it might have aged. Luckily not only did I find funny and affecting but so did my class of American twenty year olds. And they are smart; each week I learn something new about the films.
The class has also had a great stroke of luck. Stephen is shooting a new film, Tamara Drew, from a Posy Simmonds script, and Tracey Seward who is producing the film is kind enough to allow the class to spend a day at Pinewood as extras. They enjoy the day immensely, particularly the food and I think learn a great deal about the way a film is actually made.
Frears himself comes to the last class and is quizzed about everything from where he puts the camera to how he chooses his projects. Frears is always interesting but I am most fascinated when he says that he started off shooting Dangerous Liasons with wide shots and then moved into close up when he realized that his American stars acted with a degree of subtlety which could only be caught in close up.
After the class we go for a farewell lunch. I have always enjoyed teaching but in the last ten years it has become more and more of a delight. This class is a particular pleasure. I watch my students bloom each year. I hope my class plays a small part in this but I know that much more important is that almost all of them are away from home and in a foreign country for the first time. Above all they are in London. All my academic knowledge is of little importance beside the fact that I can talk to them of London over the half a century of my life.
Next term I will meet them in the Cathedral of Learning and walking up and down Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh. They are always incredibly pleased to see me; or rather they are incredibly pleased to be reminded of their time in London.